The Chinese pangolin has the dubious accolade of being the world’s most illegally traded mammal. Up to one million animals are thought to have been taken from the wild during the past decade; a loss that has resulted in the Chinese pangolin being recently upgraded to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Chinese pangolins are one of two pangolin species that occur in Nepal. They are widely distributed in non-protected areas, but local communities — often unaware that the pangolin is endangered — have been increasingly involved in the illegal trade. The meat is appreciated as a delicacy and the demand for scales is driven by the market for traditional medicine. The need to raise public awareness about the threatened status of the Chinese pangolin and the laws that exist to protect the animal in Nepal has put community engagement at the heart of a conservation programme in the east of the country.
The project – one of only a handful of community-based pangolin conservation projects worldwide – is being run by the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) with support from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) EDGE Fellowship scheme. Set up in 2012, the project aims to collect baseline information on ecology, status, distribution and specific threats facing the Chinese pangolin, and to generate support for their conservation.
The project focuses on two villages (Nangkholyang and Dokhu) in the Taplejung municipality in the east of Nepal — a transit point for the illegal trade in pangolin into Tibet and India. The population here is characterised by local ethnic diversity and the main sources of income are agriculture, livestock and labour. Most households live close to subsistence level, with some being better off due to income from farming or government jobs (such as teachers). Data from the project has revealed that those who get involved with illegal trade were generally not the poorest.
The project has been designed on the basis of existing local governance. In Nepal, districts are divided into administrative units run by Village Development Committees (VDCs). These VDCs are each subdivided into nine wards. Working with two VDCs, the project has established a pangolin conservation sub-committee in each ward. A representative from each sub-committee is then appointed to a VDC level conservation committee, which is tasked with launching and supporting conservation activities to raise awareness and control illegal trade in the village’s jurisdiction.
The role of the sub-committees in reducing illegal trade in pangolins works on various levels. They are expected to educate those locals who did not realise that killing pangolins was illegal, and to exert their influence and authority over neighbours, relatives and friends who may have been knowingly engaged in illegal activities. Finally, they discourage outsiders from coming into the villages in search of scales because they are ready to inform the authorities and security services. The goal is to tackle widespread ignorance about these increasingly rare animals, and to strengthen community commitment to stop illegal trade.
Representatives on the village sub-committees learn through training workshops that provide information on the Chinese pangolin and the consequences of illegal trade.